Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it necessary to focus efforts on vaccination and the strengthening of health systems around the world. However, the coexistence of other problems related to the pandemic, which also require efficient and early attention, is becoming increasingly significant.

One of these problems is plastic pollution. According to Yong Sik Ok, director of the Sustainable Waste Management Programme at the University of Korea, some plastic products, such as the EPP, have been of great importance in protecting people from the pandemic. However, "inadequate management of plastic waste has led to an alarming accumulation of plastic in soil and aquatic ecosystems. For example, it is estimated that approximately 1.56 billion face masks (~5.66 tons (Mt) of plastic) ended up in the oceans in 2020. It is therefore urgent and fundamental to highlight the sustainable management of plastic for a circular economy".


How is plastic pollution related to climate change?

Since the onset of the pandemic, plastic pollution has reached more than 530 tons in just the first 7 months, suggesting that the total plastic waste by 2021 would be at least double that of 2019 when plastic pollution reached 400 tons.

The ingestion of these plastics by marine organisms, along with the unexpected accumulation in terrestrial plants and animals, and the transport in the atmosphere as "plastic rain" or "plastic smog", cause concerns about the safety of human food, drinking water, and breathing air. In addition, plastics can serve as potential vectors of toxic pathogens and contaminants, causing injury and death, with direct negative effects on biodiversity.

Likewise, the production, transport, and recycling of all these tons of plastic can emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, clearly showing a negative effect on the diversion of climate change mitigation.


What measures are available to combat this problem at the global level?

Today, waste management practices need to be changed to close the plastic cycle, requiring governments, researchers, and industries to work towards smart design and sustainable recycling.

It is also necessary to encourage technological innovation, to improve the profitability of recycling, from the environmental and resource recovery point of view. Governments should encourage and implement these recycling technologies in their waste management programs.

"With the concerted efforts of industries and the financial and political support of governments, these new technologies could be expanded for commercial applications along with the drive to achieve zero net emissions in the coming decades," explains Professor Yong Sik Ok.


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